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US Marine pilot vet who worked for China arrested in international operation

Xi Jinping speaks to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 28, 2017. (Ma Zhancheng/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)
October 26, 2022

A veteran who flew AV-8B Harrier attack jets for the U.S. Marine Corps and who later worked for China was arrested in Australia last week at the request of U.S. prosecutors.

The arrest comes as Western nations have been cracking down on Chinese efforts to recruit former Western pilots to train China’s air forces. China is seeking such Western expertise as it seeks to overtake the U.S. as the dominant geopolitical force in the world.

Reuters was first to report, based on Australian court records it obtained, that Australian Federal Police arrested 54-year-old Daniel Edmund Duggan, on Friday in the rural Australian town of Orange in New South Wales. Duggan was arrested at the request of U.S. officials and is facing extradition.

Australian officials have not disclosed the exact reason for Duggan’s arrest but an aviation source told Reuters the FBI sought Duggan because of his work in China.

A LinkedIn profile under the name Daniel Duggan indicates he served with the Marine Corps from 1989 to 2002 as a Harrier pilot, an instructor pilot and exchange pilot with the Spanish Navy.

After leaving the Marines the profile state’s Duggan founded Top Gun Australia. Reuters reported records it obtained showed the business hired former U.S. and British military pilots to offer tourists joyrides in fighter jets.

Duggan’s profile states he left Top Gun Australia in 2014 and went to China where he managed two different aviation consultancy firms: MCT-Asia Ltd and AVIBIZ Limited.

Earlier this month, the U.K. government revealed that since 2019, China had hired around 30 former British military pilots — mostly with experience flying fast combat jets and helicopters — to train its own military pilots.

The Chinese recruitment effort could help make Chinese combat pilots more effective in a potential future conflict with Western forces. The recruitment effort also risks exposing sensitive Western aerial combat tactics and the physical vulnerabilities of Western aircraft for China. China could use such knowledge of Western air combat techniques to help their own forces fly more effectively or to devise ways to counter Western air tactics and systems.

The Chinese efforts to recruit former Western military pilots reportedly relied on using private and non-Chinese firms to hire the pilots, rather than the Chinese military contracting for their expertise directly.

The Daily Express reported on Sunday, based on unnamed British government sources, that at least some of the former British pilots who were recruited by China actually worked as double agents gathering information on the Chinese side for the West.

The alleged British counter-spying operation against China could be real or the revelation to the media could itself be an intelligence community effort against China. Even if no British pilots had actually worked as double agents while training China’s military, the claim that they did steal information from China could sow doubt among the Chinese military about how much they can trust the foreign pilots they recruit.

Whether or not the U.K. was able to actually exploit China’s recruitment efforts to get sensitive information from the Chinese side, both the U.K. and Australian governments are taking efforts to prevent such Chinese recruitment schemes going forward. If Duggan is indeed facing legal proceedings related to his work in China, it would indicate the U.S. is also wary of its veterans being targeted by such Chinese recruitment practices.

The U.S. Department of Justice declined an Associated Press request for comment on Duggan’s arrest. The DOJ has 60 days from Duggan’s arrest to request his extradition.